Throw a spanner in all this mechanical talk

December 5, 2003

The language used to describe teaching and learning really does have an impact -and it's driving Patrick Smith to distraction

Picking myself up off the floor, having forgotten how low the lintel over the dining room door is, I consider the concept of impact. I am suffering from an impact. That impact was sudden, unambiguous and painfully stamped itself on my consciousness. However, it is the use of the term "impact" in relation to teaching and learning that concerns me more.

No longer do we monitor and evaluate programmes, we investigate their "impact" on students. This conjures up visions of a repetitive industrial process in which inert material is fed through a stamping press to emerge at the other end as identical coins, washers or badges.

Alternatively, it could suggest something akin to a mugging or an unexpected assignation with Mike Tyson. None of these images accords with my experience of classrooms and students' learning. One suspects, however, that the notion of impact might fit nicely with those who would wish to control education without the inconvenience of having to experience its complexities.

Education seems beset by problems associated with language, both in the words used to describe common purposes and activities, and in imports from elsewhere. We speak of key skills, autonomy, transitions, assuming that their definitions are accepted. Are those skills key, generic, core or transferable? And assuming that we have a loose definition in our minds, how many of our colleagues would accept how key, transferable or generic those skills are? Are they all the same or are some more generic or core than others? At least the metaphor implied by key skills, while mechanical, suggests that the use of these skills might open possibilities and insights.

Imported terms are potentially more insidious. Take "benchmark". A benchmark was originally a way to indicate for surveying purposes precisely how far above or below sea level a particular point was. It has assumed a far less precise definition as a referent against which achievements and performances can be located or assessed. Given that language evolves over time, such a shift is understandable, acceptable even, but not necessarily conducive to clarity.

Imported verbs present worse dangers. Standards are "driven" up, suggesting that someone or some agency is in charge of a flock or a vehicle being steered towards a goal. The driver is in charge, the motor, the herd or flock is there to comply and obey. Wayward sheep are to be rounded up and herded back in. In both cases the subject is unquestionably in charge and the object is at best passively compliant and at worst recalcitrant. Any exercise of independent action is to be discouraged - stamped out even.

Teaching programmes are no longer implemented, but "rolled out", like a new car or aircraft produced by experts, emerging from behind closed doors.

Likewise, programmes of study are no longer taught - a process implying interaction between students and teachers - they are "delivered". Mail is delivered, babies are delivered and explosives are delivered by missile systems, but teaching programmes? While having their programmes delivered, students are "tracked". Their performances are scrutinised and judged to see how on or off track they are. If a track is like a rail, then such terminology implies little room for diversity, discovery or insight on the students' part. If the idea is akin to following their movements through natural terrain, that at least implies the possibility of personal and individual discovery and progress.

Many of the terms learning and teaching use imply relationships characterised by passivity on the one hand and activity and power on the other. The majority of the terms are mechanical in origin and do not accord with what happens to students and teachers in classrooms. Mechanical allusions do little to illuminate the processes of learning; indeed, they can do harm. Perhaps their attraction is that they appear to offer certainty in an uncertain world. The fact that many of the industrial and managerial innovations from which they derive have long since been ditched by their originators and adopters is conveniently forgotten.

As academics, we need to work on developing a common language. We need some consensus about what is meant by particular terms. If not, we leave ourselves vulnerable to those who would seek to make it simple and unproblematic by pushing means-ends and systems models that give the illusion of control, predictability and conformity. So perhaps it is time to turn over a few of these metaphorical stones and examine what is underneath them, or, put another way, perhaps we should kick-start an audit, roll it out and drive up levels of understanding to deliver self-starters - brmmm, brmmm.

Patrick Smith is professor of learning and teaching at Buckinghamshire Chilterns University College.

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